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Museum’s ‘Anti-Christian’ Film Draws Ire of Jewish Leaders

Observers debate merits of Holocaust Museum production that links Christianity and Nazism

BY Eleanor Kennelly And Victor Gaetan

May 17-23, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/5/99 at 1:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON—Every 14 minutes, about 32 times a day, 363 days a year, in the shadow of the Washington monument, a woman slowly intones her version of history: “Christianity emerged from Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew,” she begins. “The early Christian Church condemned Jews as agents of the devil, and blamed them for killing Jesus. This accusation was not renounced until the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council.”

She continues, “Christian crusaders slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews…. The Protestant Reformation brought no end to the anti-Jewish tradition of Christianity.”

After quoting Martin Luther that Jewish homes should be burned, she gets to the present century: “Enter Hitler, Austrian-born and baptized a Catholic.” Her voice goes deep as she imitates Hitler: “In defending myself against the Jews I am acting for the Lord. The difference between the Church and me is that I am finishing the job.”

Finally, she warns, “This is where prejudice can lead,” clearly meaning that Christian prejudice against Jews led to their murder under Nazism.

Every 14 minutes, a clutch of sober visitors listen to this explanation of the Holocaust, but this woman is not just another individual with a cause, wearing a hand-stenciled placard, a common sight on the Washington mall.

She is the voice-over for a film underwritten with federal money produced by the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has been prominently featured in the museum's permanent exhibit for several years.

Until last December, there was no organized protest against the film AntiSemitism, but on Dec. 5, 1997, five prominent Jewish leaders led by Michael Horowitz (see “InPerson” page 1) wrote to the director of the United States Holocaust Museum protesting what they viewed as “libels of Christianity” in the film's “profoundly inaccurate thesis: that Christianity and Christian leaders were the initial causes of anti-Semitism and have at all times been its major proponents.”

The letter was signed by policy analysts Michael Horowitz and Chester Finn of the Hudson Institute; Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; Jewish historian David Dalin; film critic Michael Medved; and scholar Michael Ledeen. Horowitz, Finn, Abrams, and Ledeen all served as Reagan Administration officials.

The five-page letter is a detailed challenge to the film. The authors point out that by blaming Christianity for the Holocaust, the producers ignore numerous other historical sources of antiSemitism including the fact that AntiSemitism pre-dates Christianity. They cite the Old Testament itself as a record of pre-Christian persecution and enslavement of the Jews.

More important, the authors write, Christianity has been a civilizing and democratizing force throughout history despite sins committed in its name. By using a quote from Adolf Hitler that creates the false impression that Hitler saw himself as acting on behalf of the Church — when there is even more evidence that he saw religion and religious organizations as rival forces that should be destroyed — the film's producers conflate Nazism and Christianity, promoting the idea that religion and intolerance are synonymous.

The museum did not officially reply to the group until last month when exhibition curator Steven Luckert wrote to Horowitz alone explaining that an extensive review of the film is underway. According to a museum spokes-woman there is no deadline for the conclusion of this review.

Michael Horowitz, for one, is not satisfied with the museum's response to date.

“It's a classic, ‘Don't call us, we'll call you’ pro forma response,” he complained. In an interview with the Register, Horowitz explained that he and other conservative Jews have taken up this cause for two reasons.

First, he said, Christians themselves are often intimidated about defending their own religion especially when it comes to the Holocaust. Second, by blaming the Holocaust on the existence of Christianity, it's just a short step to condemning all religions as intolerant and all believers as superstitious at best, potential murderers at worse.

“Aggressive Christianity certainly didn't cause the Holocaust,” explained Horowitz. “Aggressive Christians saved many Jews during the war as we all should know, but the attitude represented by the film could be read as meaning, ‘if we get rid of religion, we'd have a perfect world.’Well the communists tried that and guess what? Stalin was one of the biggest anti-Semites of the century.”

Horowitz continued, “As a religious person, I am offended. Jews should defend Christianity as a sister religion, but sometimes it's hard for Christians to defend Christianity. So we got the ball rolling and I hope Catholics and evangelicals, all people of faith, challenge it too.”

So far, though, the most vocal response to the Dec. 5 protest has come from another Jewish figure, Leon Wieseltier, an editor of The New Republic.

In a sarcastic article titled “Epistle to the Hebrews” (The New Republic, Feb. 9, 1998), Wieseltier declared, “The letter (of protest from Horowitz, et al.) is an ignorant and indecent document.” He called the authors “fools” for making their case.

For Wieseltier, only one thing matters: “The brutal and incontrovertible truth is that Auschwitz was created in the heart of Christian civilization [and] Auschwitz was not the first time that Christian civilization inspired, supported, or countenanced an attempt to destroy the Jews physically.”

Wieseltier's attitude echoes the response of some in the Jewish community who expressed disappointment in the Vatican's statement on the Holocaust, We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah, released March 16. The Vatican document makes a distinction between religious prejudice against the Jews, termed anti-Judaism, of which Christians have been guilty, and AntiSemitism as a racial theory that guided Nazism.

Pope John Paul II first made this distinction last October at a Vatican seminar on anti-Jewish currents in Christian theology. At that event, the Pope explained his view that wrong interpretations of the New Testament had created hostility toward the Jews among Christians, but he made clear that he was not attributing blame to the Church as an institution.

As Elliott Abrams made clear in his reply to the Wieseltier article, there is a growing academic consensus that Nazi ideology is significantly different from earlier anti-Jewish prejudice in its racially based, pseudo-scientific condemnation of Jews.

Has any Catholic organization weighed in on the matter of the film Anti-Semitism? The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has received several complaints about the film during the last few months, but the League has not taken a position on it because, according to communications director Rick Hinshaw, no one there has seen it yet. Hinshaw did note a trend toward blaming Christianity for the Holocaust, though.

Sources close to Holocaust Museum deliberations said it's unlikely that the museum will change the film especially because Catholic members of the museum's Church relations council have been supportive, including council chairman Father John Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Another member of the museum's Church relations council, Eugene Fisher, director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, reviewed the film while it was still in production: “I think Michael Horowitz is straining at gnats to pull it this way,” he said. “I viewed it along with the rest of the Church relations committee. I offered a few corrections but you can't take it out of context. The museum has a whole section honoring Catholics who saved Jews. Alone, the film is inadequate. That's why it isn't shown outside the museum. Within the context of the museum, I don't think it is anti-Christian.”

Whether or not it's adequate, the film has not attracted much criticism from Christians. Why not? Robert Royal, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinks we're used to it: “As far as criticism of Christianity, we're not as sensitive because, maybe, we tend to feel, Christianity has lasted for centuries and will last for centuries, so why bother. There isn't much burning interest on our side to go see this thing. We don't have as much investment in the whole question of the Holocaust as the Jewish community does.”

Eleanor Kennelly and Victor Gaetan write from Washington.